You can’t beat a bit of real mystery as the background for dramatic super-reality, can you? Well, that’s what the latest Doctor Who series tapped into when the Tardis touched down in Liverpool on Sunday evening.
Not being a time traveller myself, I can’t say that I completely followed the plot. But the bit that caught my attention was a time warp scene set in the 1830s when a Scouser called Joseph Williamson was being asked to explain the strange warren of tunnels that he and his workers were burrowing under a Liverpool hill.
Doctor Who is, of course, fiction, but Williamson certainly wasn’t. And nor are the tunnels, with their huge chambers, steep staircases, vast arches and one corridor a mile long that his labourers dug from under his house and across much of the Edge Hill area of the city.
In effect, Williamson became a spec builder, and maybe something of an amateur architect. And, although, after his death in 1840 he was forgotten for over a century, he left behind an underground heritage which has only recently started to be excavated.
Unfortunately, he didn’t also bequeath posterity any idea of his motives for digging his labyrinth. In fact he was quite secretive about it, never explaining its purpose to anyone. That made people suspicious.
But, why would a very rich man devote so much money and energy into such an undertaking? Once known in Liverpool as the ‘Mole of Edge Hill’, did he, as some believe, simply want to create work for the local unemployed of the time? It’s a philanthropic thought, and he may well have been a generous man who believed in the Protestant ethic of honest toil being good for the soul.
But there must have been more pleasant jobs than condemning men to work by candlelight in pitch, damp darkness for hours and then years. And why bother making the brickwork on the underground arches so perfect, if no-one else was ever going to see them? At least the Pyramids were resting places for gods.
Another theory is that he was surreptitiously exchanging the stone blocks his employees were chiseling out of the earth for bricks to build houses alongside his own on the land above, which he also owned?
That’s possible, too. He apparently became a strict landlord and he personally vetted everyone who lived in one of the houses he built. No riff-raff in the Mole’s houses.
Less plausible is that he may have been a religious extremist who thought that Armageddon was just around the corner, so he decided to dig a refuge for his himself and friends, which might account for the several gothic features found in the tunnels.
He was certainly a bit odd, especially after his wife died in 1822, spending much of his time sitting in his cellar, what some now call his Banqueting Hall, and sleeping in the cave that was his bedroom.
This leads, of course, to the idea that he was simply a rich lunatic, who thought he was digging some kind of Necropolis-on-the-Mersey? If the Beatles had known about his endeavours in1960 they might have started their careers in one of his caverns instead of that smelly old fruit cellar near the Pier Head.
No doubt Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who, and John Bishop, your everyday Liverpudlian mate, will, over the next five weeks of the series, come up with an explanation, and once again thwart the diabolically evil intentions of some horrible looking creatures from outer space.
But personally, I’m more a functionalist than a fantasist. Everything always has a function, and Joseph Williamson lived at the time of huge development when entrepreneurs were nothing if not practical.
Having been born in 1769, he was brought to Liverpool at the age of 11 when he took lodgings with the merchandising Tate family who had a tobacco and snuff company. Joining the firm as an office clerk he apparently excelled, to the extent that he went on to marry the boss’s artist daughter, Elizabeth, and eventually took over the running of the company.
Then in 1805, now in his mid-thirties, he bought Long Broom Hill Field on the relatively undeveloped Edge Hill ridge. Building himself a house with a garden and orchard that looked down on the Mersey, he then erected other houses along the same road.
It was a steadily rising tide for business then, and, now rich, he decided to build a mega-basement, and then another, under his house and garden, rather in the style the super-rich do these days in London’s Notting Hill Gate.
Soon that wasn’t enough and he began further excavations in other parts of the Edge Hill district. The red sandstone rock of the area had long been used for quarrying, and a deep cutting was being sawn into the hill close to his home.
It was part of a grand plan to lay the first ever railway line that would connect the port of Liverpool with the spinning mills in Manchester, and George Stevenson had been hired as its engineer.
So successful was Stephenson, that anyone who travelled to Liverpool in the next hundred and forty years will remember going through that cutting before reaching Lime Street Station. Some of Williamson’s tunnels were inside the solid rock on either side of the line.
Rather less successful than the cutting was the railway’s first trial. It was 1830, and such a big event, and with Williamson already knowing Stephenson, it’s highly likely that he would have been present when Stephenson’s first engine, the Rocket, was tried out on the line. It only went at 10 miles an hour, but it was fast enough to run over and kill the local Member of Parliament, William Huskisson.
Williamson was, by now getting on, so, we must suppose that, after selling his tobacco and snuff business he concentrated the rest of his life on extending his labyrinth of tunnels. He died of ‘water on the chest’ (pleural effusion) in1840.
With his burial alongside his wife in the Tate family vault at the local church his story seemed to end. He had no children and his house and his belongings were sold.
Rumours about the Mole of Edge Hill circulated for a few decades in Liverpool, but as the area became poorer and less attractive, the arches and tunnels he had so carefully had built became a dumping ground for builders’ rubble, old household crockery and implements. A century later, one of his arches became a garage.
In 1936 his house was torn down, apart, for some unknown reason, from the front door and wall, which still stands, propped up from behind like a Western street on a Hollywood film set. History had, it seemed consigned Williamson’s eccentricities to local history.
Then in 1996, a group of amateur archeologists became intrigued by the unresearched story, and began spending their weekends in exploration. It was dirty, sometimes dangerous, work, with no map to follow, arches that led nowhere and countless tons of refuse to be cleared, chamber by chamber, step by step. But slowly, the scope of Williamson’s imagination became clearer – although never his motives.
The explorers now call themselves the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels, have over 1400 members and are a registered charity, while some of the underground chambers have been reopened for the public to admire and for pop groups to make videos.
For sure, Joseph Williamson was an eccentric, perhaps even a little crazy. But when he died he left behind a mystery that not even Doctor Who will be able to solve. He might have liked that.